(The photos in this post were taken around 5 p.m. and aren’t great, so I apologize. I picked the best examples in a cemetery that was mostly brown and flooded with slanting light. Better luck next time, eh?)
At the first Crypt conference I went to the guest speaker was a park ranger from the gorgeous Kingsley Plantation in Jacksonville, Florida. Her speech was about a small African American cemetery that was found on the property with 8 people buried there, most of them children. All of them were slaves.
The story was touching enough because of the loss of several children, as well as the always painful tie to slavery. The other part that really disturbed me was that one of the men buried there had such severe damage to his bones that he was unable to walk upright before his death. They said much of it would have been caused by the physical labor he did during his lifetime, and that he would have been in a horrible amount of pain. His teeth, the speaker noted, were filed to points. All of these people were buried under a large, patriarch oak tree. The tree itself served as the marker for those buried there with the roots holding them together as one community, even in death. I loved thinking about that.
I personally love visiting cemeteries with large trees on the grounds, but they can also cause a lot of damage when they fall. I’ve been so thankful that during the hurricanes the cemeteries I love most did not have trees falling and breaking headstones. If they fell, they miraculously seemed to fall away from the stones for the most part.
We were recently at Sanksville Cemetery in St. Augustine and there was a lot of tree damage from Hurricane Irma. Several had dropped large limbs, but several had fallen over, exposing roots. One had pulled two headstones from the 1880’s up with it as it fell and the ground had pulled up around the base of the tree, like someone pulling on skin. I was definitely concerned about how they would be able to restore the headstones to their proper place after removing the tree and what they might find when they started working.
This cemetery is an historic African American graveyard dating back to the 1869 and is still an active cemetery today, with newer burials in the back. It has multiple veterans, deacons, and church pastors buried there and is a fascinating place to visit. The older burials are in the front, and the stones are simple, but beautiful and in good condition.
The problem with fallen trees is that they can sometimes move bodies with them. In a cemetery this old it’s unlikely that the people who do the cleanup will find anything, but sometimes they do. You have to look at the roots first and then In the hole created when the tree fell. It’s a scary thing to consider when you find a tree down in a graveyard and you’re the first one there to go peek.
Trees also manage to consume headstones and markers as they age and grow, and while it’s fascinating to see, there have been many headstones that I’ve wanted to see that were almost completely covered by a growing tree. Charleston’s Unitarian Churchyard had a few examples, but that cemetery is so beautiful I was in total awe the entire time I was there.
If you get a chance to visit Sanksville it’s a bit of a drive from the city center, but worth it. You can find it by the historical marker on the main road, and it appears to be adjacent to residential property, but no one said anything to us and it isn’t marked as private. Clean up work is in progress, and I was very happy to see that.
If you ever find exposed remains or coffins/caskets in a cemetery notify the local sheriff’s office. Protocol is for them to go out with a coroner to determine the age of the remains, though that doesn’t always happen. But still, report it. You can always call the cemetery owner as well.